All the economic alarm is exacerbating the tendency already rising among marketers to delay decisions on budgets and creative approaches until the last second. Unfortunately for monthlies, which often need about two months to get an ad into an issue, the "last second" is often actually well past their deadlines.
"I've been doing this for 21 years," said Gary Armstrong, chief marketing officer at Wenner Media. "You used to get a two-year schedule. And then it was a one-year schedule. Now it's planned quarterly. They get their budgets approved quarterly as well."
So advertisers say, "'We've got a product launch for the holidays,'" Mr. Armstrong added, "'but we can't get the budget approved until the first week of the quarter.' That's too late for monthlies."
The problem isn't so bad with a magazine's core advertisers, which are committed to longer schedules across multiple issues, publishers and agency executives said. And the most desirable titles don't feel this pinch too much at all. But the longer marketers sit on their hands, the worse things get for those titles in the second tier of consideration.
"Tier twos that are monthlies with much longer lead times are going to suffer, strictly because of the indecision that's out there," said Bill Koenigsberg, CEO of Horizon Media.
Even without the financial meltdown, monthlies are at a disadvantaged related to weeklies. Mediaedge:cia recently ran seven ad pages in Wenner's Us Weekly for a campaign promoting the Sony Ericsson Z750 phone, which was in stores but not getting satisfactory support from retailers.
"It was very much a last-minute project from the client," said Nicole Carmello, senior partner and communications-strategy director at Mediaedge. "They were able to get a budget to support it, but we needed to build awareness quickly. Looking at monthlies was not an option. The phone was already in the market."
The rough business environment is making every page matter more than ever. Across magazines as a whole, declines in ad-page sales are accelerating. Ad pages fell 12.9% in the third quarter from the third quarter of 2007, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. That's a sharper loss than magazines absorbed in the second quarter, which saw an 8.2% drop, or the first quarter, which slipped "only" 6.4%. Long lead times proved enough of a concern that the Magazine Publishers of America formed an "immediacy committee" in 2003 to focus on the subject. The committee no longer meets, but it helped frame the issue and identify opportunities to address it, according to Nina Link, president-CEO of the association.
"It put together some important next steps for publishers, in particular to take with printers, suppliers and retailers," Ms. Link said.
The association, for example, is working with the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies to encourage adoption of electronic insertion orders.
Earlier this year, Bonnier took over the preprint process from its printer in a bid to save money and time. "It could, in some cases, buy us a day," said Eric Zinczenko, group publisher of the Bonnier Outdoor Group, including Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.
It also delivered related benefits. "It allowed us to have better control of a magazine's materials," Mr. Zinczenko said. "By having prepress in-house, it allows us to check our advertiser's file and make sure their materials look fine."
Some magazine executives doubted there was much incremental advertising to gain or protect by further shortening lead times. "To drive faster lead times just for the sake of being able to get some more advertising?" said Jack Kliger, the former CEO at Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. who now is senior adviser to the company. "It's not going to make that much of a difference."
A lot of the lag time falls at the feet of wholesalers, Mr. Kliger added, pointing out that they're the ones responsible for getting titles from the printing plant to newsstands.
But where possible, shrinking lead times remains an ideal. "It makes sense to do it in terms of making your workflow efficient, to take advantage of digital technology, so that you eliminate as many intermediate steps as possible," Mr. Kliger said.